Strong contingent of overseas players link up with US golf tour

The PGA Tour is experiencing a foreign invasion that could make this a memorable watershed golf season before it's done. Playing the circuit full time as of this winter are Spain's Seve Ballesteros, Australia's Greg Norman, and Britain's Nick Faldo, world class performers all. Also due here is West Germany's Bernhard Langer, a star of last fall's Ryder Cup.

Good foreign golfers have come to the United States before and won - Gary Player, with 21 tour victories, is the most successful - but never in such numbers and never with such established credentials.

Ballesteros in a way had the best year of anyone on the PGA Tour playing part time in 1983. He entered only eight tournaments and won two of them: the venerable Masters and the rich Westchester. No one won more.

His average earnings per event were a resounding $26,000. No one else was even close to that figure.

Norman, the Marco Polo of golf, won the Australian Masters recently, which gave him a stunning seven wins in his last 10 tries around the globe. Said David Graham, who competed against him in the Australian Masters, ''I witnessed the most awesome display of long and accurate driving I've seen in my entire life watching Greg.''

Late last year Norman beat a strong field of US pros in the Kapalua, Hawaii, tournament, winning by six shots. Earlier he had won the World Match Play Championship, over Faldo in the final.

Faldo was Europe's No. 1 player in '83, holding off a forceful challenge by Ballesteros toward the end. He won five European tournaments and subsequently finished second over here in the Disney World event to become exempt for this year's American tour.

Faldo and Langer won three of their four partners matches against the US in the Ryder Cup, Faldo disspelling any doubts about his competitive fiber and Langer finding a way to combat his putting problems by crossing his hands on the grip.

Langer and Ballesteros both won three times on the European tour.

This golfing version of the foreign legion brings more than strong credentials to the PGA Tour; it brings a generous helping of flamboyance and personality.

Langer is perhaps the longest hitter in golf. Paired with Tom Watson one year in the World Series of Golf, he consistently poled his drives 25 and 30 yards past the American superstar. (It also can be exciting to watch him putt and see whether his concentration holds firm.)

Norman, a dashingly tall blond, became known while contending in the 1981 Masters as the Great White Shark for the shark-hunting tales he told. It turns out they were somewhat exaggerated fishing stories, but the nickname stuck nonetheless, and the head covers on his woods are puppet sharks.

Norman never played golf until he was 16 and caddied for his mother one day. He then taught himself by reading a couple of Jack Nicklaus instruction books, a development Jack may yet live to rue.

His short game is rounding out and he appears ready to win in the US.

Ballesteros, who finally gained concessions from the PGA Tour to join its regular ranks and still play more or less as he pleases in Europe, is as commanding a presence as exists in sport today. The finest instinctive golfer in the game, he can concoct shots that other top players could neither imagine nor, if they could, begin to execute.

Mistakenly known as a slugger, Ballesteros in fact is a reconstructed home-run hitter who depends much more on finesse than strength. It is between him and Watson as to who has the best short game in golf.

The 26-year-old Spaniard's rare blend of power and touch can produce very special results, as in his two US victories last year. In the Masters he quickly extinguished all threats the final day by beginning birdie-eagle-par-birdie, putting away such hopeful pursuers as Watson, Ray Floyd, and Craig Stadler.

At Westchester, he eagled the finishing hole to win.

Says Ben Crenshaw, a golfer of considerable insight: ''Seve and these other foreign players could even dominate our tour. It's going to be a terribly interesting season.''

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